By Brian Wheeler
Friday, October 2, 2009
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
(DEQ) has begun an analysis of a long-term water supply alternative advocated by
Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris
. The mayor’s alternative is an attempt to determine if the region’s
50-year water supply plan
, approved in 2006, can be adjusted to save millions in construction costs without having to restart the state and federal permitting process.
This article is an extended version of what appears in
today’s Daily Progress
The existing plan recommends building a new, higher dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir and pumping water there from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. But it has come under increasing fire by critics who predict the original $142 million price tag will escalate and think dredging the South Fork Reservoir, combined with increased conservation, could play a bigger role and lower the costs to ratepayers.
In late July, Norris was accompanied by
Albemarle County Supervisor David Slutzky
(Rio) to a meeting in Richmond with three state water officials. Norris asked the state to assess his proposal to build a smaller dam at Ragged Mountain combined with dredging at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
In the meeting, Mayor Norris said he was surprised by the importance regulators placed on protecting stream flows for aquatic species.
“We may come up with a plan that meets our needs, is cheaper, minimizes tree loss, and it may still get turned down by Richmond if it doesn’t meet these criteria,” said Norris. “I also found it eye opening that preserving the health of the mussels and the fish may determine our path forward.”
DEQ is one of the agencies that granted permits in 2008 authorizing the water supply plan to move forward. The plan was unanimously approved in 2006 by city council and the board of supervisors and any modifications require DEQ’s approval.
Slutzky, who serves as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, is running for re-election and first mentioned the trip in
a candidate interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow
“I have a good relationship with Dave Norris,” said Slutzky. “We wanted to get an understanding of the consequences of reopening the discussion on the approved permits for the water supply plan.”
In February 2009, Dave Norris first detailed his own water plan alternative which at Ragged Mountain focuses on building on top of the existing dam (built circa 1908) to raise the pool elevation by 13 feet. Any change in water storage potentially impacts other aspects of the plan, specifically the stream flow release requirements and the system’s overall ability to supply sufficient water at times of worst drought.
“I was most interested in seeing what would trigger a new permitting process,” said Norris. “I was reassured in the meeting that the kinds of changes I have been exploring would not necessarily cause us to have to get a new permit. There is a process in place for modifying the existing permits. It is not something you can take lightly or do easily, but they do have a mechanism in place for changes.”
Slutzky, on the other hand, has been a steadfast supporter of the approved plan and its proposal to build a taller dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir raising the water pool there by 45 feet. Both Slutzky and Norris agree the enlarged reservoir will be filled via a new pipeline from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
Stream flows and the plan’s permits
is a DEQ director responsible for surface and groundwater planning. He and two other water officials met with Slutzky and Norris on July 30, 2009.
“We have always been willing to consider changes, but any changes to the permit would require maintaining in-stream flows,” said Kudlas.
Stream flows are a key component of the water supply plan as water releases are required by the approved permits in a variety of conditions at all three major reservoirs. At the meeting in Richmond, DEQ agreed to model a much smaller dam at Ragged Mountain combined with dredging at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
“They asked us to look at a 13-foot rise with dredging,” said Kudlas. “We did offer to do some modeling to determine whether or not a particular scenario might be able to meet the in-stream flows we specified in the permit.”
Kudlas said he would put their findings in writing, but that there was no firm timeline for completing the modeling which is currently underway. He declined to speculate on what the research would reveal.
Slutzky said he was told candidly by DEQ officials that they were “highly confident” the request for a change in the permits to support the Norris alternative would be turned down.
Norris added that officials were “pretty clear to say that any plan that does not ensure a high level of protection for the health of the streams and rivers is not likely to get approved by Richmond.”
Council to consider dredging study
dredging feasibility study
will be discussed by City Council at their meeting Monday night. Council has to decide whether to reduce the scope of a dredging study that has a new cost estimate of between $326,000 to $562,000.
During the past year, City Council has insisted that dredging of South Fork be studied as part of the water supply plan, an approach officials dismissed in 2006 because of projected costs and because dredging did not generate enough new storage capacity by itself.
Norris has described the past assessment of dredging by consultant Gannett Fleming as being based on “faulty assumptions” and he has consistently advocated for more information on the costs and practicality of dredging. Norris was asked by Charlottesville Tomorrow if the analysis currently underway by DEQ would impact his review of the dredging feasibility study.
“I am not personally convinced that it makes sense to dredge the reservoir if we build this massive dam at Ragged Mountain,” said Norris. “Dredging then would seem too expensive and like overkill to me. Regardless, I am strongly in favor of proceeding with the dredging study, which will be scaled back from the original proposal.”
Additional feedback from DEQ
Norris told Charlottesville Tomorrow that he was surprised by two other issues raised in the meeting with state water officials. He said he asked what standards were used to assess the ecological health for aquatic species in the river system.
“I was taken aback by response,” said Norris. “There are no fixed standards, it is essentially a judgment call by the regulators.”
Second, Norris said the regulators gave him an assessment of Charlottesville’s water conservation efforts.
“They don’t feel like there is a lot of room for us to get smarter with water savings,” said Norris. “I still feel strongly that the 5% conservation rate [in the plan] is too low. But I don’t know what the right number is yet.”
Kudlas told Charlottesville Tomorrow that Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville were already among the lowest per capita users of water in all of Virginia.
“I am still hopeful,” said Norris. “I did not leave that meeting thinking all was lost. I thought there was still a chance to put together a better plan, but it was pretty sobering to hear they are setting a very high bar in terms of issues of aquatic health.”